2020 Apple Event doubles as an unparalleled marketing moment for Verizon 5G
During Apple’s iPhone event on Tuesday, the tech behemoth gave significant airtime to one carrier and one carrier only: Verizon. The carrier used its time in the spotlight to announce its expanded ultra wideband 5G in metropolitan areas, as well as the launch of its nationwide 5G. It was a remarkable moment: Apple doesn’t typically devote much time to the carriers during these events, and hasn’t favored one carrier over another in the recent past (at iPhone’s launch in 2007, Apple did have a multi-year exclusivity agreement with AT&T). This marketing event will further solidify consumer perception of Verizon as the country’s network leader, a perception that will now extend to 5G.
The launch of a 5G-capable iPhone has been a long-anticipated event. Many in the industry, including myself, have looked to the 5G iPhone launch as an inflection point for consumer 5G adoption, given the popularity of iPhone and its customers’ unfailing loyalty. In other words, no matter how many Android-based 5G phones were available, they weren’t going to move the needle on 5G adoption the way iPhone would. And while the pandemic and its impact on consumer spending will put a previously unexpected damper on iPhone 12 sales this year, Apple’s launch is still a major milestone for 5G.
Verizon took the opportunity to ensure that if the iPhone 12 launch was going to be about 5G, then it was going to be about Verizon 5G. The carrier deliberately waited to turn on its nationwide 5G until iPhone 12 was unveiled (it could have turned on nationwide 5G much earlier, thanks to something called dynamic spectrum sharing, which uses Verizon’s existing 4G LTE network). Verizon’s decision was a gamble. The carrier gave its primary competitor T-Mobile many months of time to poke fun at Verizon’s limited 5G availability, and to spread messages about the importance of #5GforAll, while Verizon’s 5G availability remained a mere scattering of pinpoints on major metropolitan maps. But I’d say the gamble paid off. Not only did Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg get four minutes of speaking time during the Apple Event, but his announcement occurred immediately after Tim Cook announced that iPhone 12 would support 5G, and before they showed the phone itself! Talk about rapt attention. Apple fans watching the livestream are likely to think of Verizon when they think of 5G.
But it’s more than just associating 5G with Verizon. What Verizon achieved with its exclusive presence at the event is tying the idea of a premium 5G experience to its brand through its alignment with the premium iPhone 12. Consumers already have a high perception of Verizon’s 4G LTE network, as evidenced by its extensive catalog of JD Power Awards. And the idea of Verizon’s network superiority was already transferring over to 5G, even despite the carrier’s very limited availability; entering 2020, nearly half of consumers perceived Verizon to have the best 5G network, according to Cowen and Company. The Apple Event will solidify this idea. And if Verizon offers a premium network, then it can charge premium prices.
Additionally, Verizon was the only carrier whose iPhone 12/12 mini offers were highlighted, immediately following Apple’s pricing details.
As I alluded to earlier, 5G-capable iPhone 12 would be more impactful if it weren’t launching in the middle of a pandemic. While consumers who are financially sound coming into the holiday season may be looking to splurge on a new iPhone 12, the audience for new phones, and for pricey unlimited plans with 5G, will be diminished due to the financial constraints so many households are facing. A survey Mintel conducted this summer found that fewer than 20% of consumers said they had adopted a 5G plan or plan to do so in the next 12 months.
In one respect, this is actually good news for carriers. Most of the available “nationwide” 5G networks (looking at the coverage maps shows that each carrier qualifies “nationwide” very differently) that carriers have been hyping offer an experience only marginally better than 4G LTE. If everyone were rushing out to buy an iPhone 12 and immediately starting using 5G, carriers would be dealing with a lot of disappointed consumers. Hopefully by the time we all really start adopting 5G, the next-generation networks will offer something more exciting than a slightly improved experience.